Noguchi, Barbican, review: The unstoppable optimism of an unrecognized “total artist”
There is a good chance that you have lived with one of Isamu Noguchi’s works, perhaps a large part of your life, without ever realizing it. The Japanese-American sculptor’s light shades Akari – thin spirals of bamboo covered with rice paper, first made in 1951 – have become one of the most ubiquitous works created by an artist ever. Popularized by Habitat in Great Britain in the 1960s, they are still available from Ikea, in a slightly bastard pastiche form, which nevertheless gives a good taste of the original.
If you are saying to yourself “Surely a paper lampshade cannot be art” or “Sorry, is this an art or design exhibition?” You are exactly the kind of person who needs to see this terribly unrecognized. the first British exhibition of the late artist in 20 years. Encompassing sculpture, theater, architecture, interiors, gardens and industrial design, it takes us to a post-war utopian moment where art, design and architecture were integrated with research. of a new world of light, space and social harmony.
And you don’t have to work to imagine yourself with that in mind: you walk right in by entering this Barbican exhibit. With the entire lower gallery open, a selection of the 200 versions of the Akari lampshade illuminates the space – luminous spheres; flattened ovoid; cubes; Columns; hang Akaris like paper accordions lit from within; Curved akaris protruding from the ground like glowworms made of paper – among an array of Noguchi sculptures in bronze, stone, clay and steel. If the effect is a bit like an ultra-minimalist and avant-garde lighting showroom circa 1958, that in itself is a privilege. And the intensity of the light is subtly graduated so that you gradually shift from relative darkness to light, as if you are following the shift from night to day or the curvature of the Earth. And if that sounds like a big idea, then Noguchi himself, born in Los Angeles in 1904, tended to aspire to the universal.
“To be a hybrid is to be the future,” he wrote in 1942 from the Arizona desert, where he was interned as an enemy alien during World War II, a statement that sounds like a prediction. of our current age of migration and self-transformation. Son of a Japanese poet father and an Irish-American writer mother, Noguchi lived a chaotic bohemian childhood that led to a life in constant motion, between Japan, California, London, New York, China (where he studied traditional painting – some quite beautiful brush drawings are exhibited there) and in Paris, where he was the assistant of the great Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. If the primitive bronze, Globular, 1928, looks a bit too much like the classic Brancusi, the inclusion of a hanging paper light sculpture much later, Akari N7, 1955, shows how much its repeated form in “double pyramid” owes to the seminal work of Brancusi Endless column from 1918: monumental form converted into a domestic sculpture as light as a feather which folds into nothingness.
While Noguchi saw himself as a lifelong outsider, he easily turned to collaborations with some of the 20th century’s greatest innovators. He worked on Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car, which the visionary architect and inventor wanted to steal, and designed the most groundbreaking productions of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. The arched brass shape of her Spider Dress Graham Heart Cave, 1946, looks special in the gallery as art, with its protruding threads echoing both the branches and the human nervous system, until you realize it’s meant to be worn, like a performative kinetic sculpture.
Equally revolutionary was his 1944 “lunar” wall sculpture series with the lunar surfaces of the Arizona desert – observed during his internment – echoing in protruding forms of synthetic materials: white magnesite, plastic and fiberglass. glass. Even more innovative was the incorporation of electric lights, which anticipated the Akari shade, a contemporary response to the traditional Japanese paper lantern. Illuminating lunar landscapes of red marble or shining from a ceiling in a pyramidal grid of paper and bamboo, Akari structures recur throughout the exhibition, suggesting a kind of universally accessible illumination that goes beyond the simple. physical.
A completely different side of Noguchi is seen in some extremely bizarre sculptures created in the aftermath of Hiroshima. In Avatar, 1947, anthropomorphic shapes carved from sheets of pink marble architectural cladding interlock and hang over each other like suggestive body parts in works unlike any other art I can think of, unless it wasn’t Miro drugged. Similar wooden structures seem to be trying to transform into furniture even as you look at them.
The Barbican’s monumental columns and distressed Brutalist surfaces make it the perfect setting for an exhibit that feels like a vacation in a Modernist paradise. While there is a lot of dark stuff here, including a 1935 sculpture protesting racist lynchings, the prevailing vibe is unstoppable positivity and optimism. Noguchi’s instincts, formed at least in part by his Japanese origin, point towards harmony, wholeness and spiritual integration of art and everyday life: this can distinguish him from the preoccupation with art. century with problematic fragmentation, but it feels right on the money with what we want art to do today.
Whether or not he turns out to be one of the greatest in sculpture, Noguchi was most interesting as a total artist, whose ideas about time, space, and relativity are also evident in the fields of his children’s games, garden designs and a first plastic baby monitor he put into production in 1937, as in everything he created to be galleryed.
Noguchi, Barbican Art Gallery, until January 9